Not By Force, But By Example

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What does it take for a movement to become mainstream?

I thought about this a great deal as I walked nine miles during the Women’s March on Washington yesterday. It weighed on me most deeply at the MLK memorial, where the above photo was taken.

I would not have described myself as a political person before I became a teacher. A voter, sure. In college, I was your average English major without a plan (being a teacher was not in the cards, or so I thought). What I believed in was reading, thinking about it, coming up with analysis, and writing that down.

The thing is, when you do these things well — when you truly are literate — you figure stuff out. And once you figure stuff out, you can’t go back to where you were before.

I have chosen to dedicate my life to helping students become literate, but I have not paused my own ongoing exploration of the world in the process. It’s been quite the opposite. As inequality in our country increases, I find myself both working harder to make my classroom a place where students can freely explore the “how” and “why” of our world, while also personally becoming more certain as to some of the reasons that our nation fails at ensuring justice and security for all its people.

There are plenty of moments I where I don’t share my personal opinion on something we are exploring in class. But that doesn’t mean I stop thinking it, or that I hide it from them permanently. My responsibility as a teacher is to both educate my students and advocate for a world in which they will be able to achieve everything that education promises them. They are capable of understanding that complexity.

So: I can have students making all kinds of economic arguments in their 2Fer essays, and also choose to stand with Fight for $15 protestors outside City Hall.

I can be honest about my personal voting record, and still watch and analyze the inauguration with my journalism students, imaginary press passes hanging around our necks.

I can both help a student revise their “Why I Supported Donald Trump in the Election” column and also be clear that, if our current president can’t bring himself to follow the three rules for conversation at SLA, he is not welcome in my classroom.

And when it comes to matters of civil rights, I can help set the stage for our nation to evolve  — not by force, but by example. Schools set the bar for what our world should and will look like. The pressure is huge, but the potential payoff enormous.

This coming week, teachers at my school are choosing to explore the foundational ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement with their students. This is a part of a citywide effort on the part of my union caucus to raise consciousness about issues of racial justice. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have, the moments of discovery and debate. I feel fortunate that my union, the American Federation of Teachers, has already given significant support to BLM. And I feel hopeful that individuals and groups who are just getting to know this new chapter in our nation’s history of civil rights will join us in our learning.

Figuring this out was not a complex political act. It is not activism. What it took was some reading, thinking, and talking with others. Stop by my classroom this week, we’ll be doing just that.

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